The Simp­son Legacy

On 13th July 1967, Bri­tish rider Tom Simp­son col­lapsed on Mont Ven­toux dur­ing the Tour de France. Fifty years later, Cy­clist travels to Bel­gium to meet Simp­son’s daugh­ter, Joanne, and dis­cover more about the man and his un­timely death

Cyclist - - Contents - Words JEREMY WHITTLE Pho­tog­ra­phy GEOFF WAUGH

Fifty years on from Tom Simp­son’s death on Mont Ven­toux, his daugh­ter Joanne re­veals all about the man be­hind the myth

How much do most peo­ple know about Tom Simp­son, be­yond that he died one bak­ing af­ter­noon high on the bar­ren slopes of Mont Ven­toux in south­ern France? Well, at a time when Bri­tish cy­cling was a down­trod­den back­wa­ter, Simp­son was a World Cham­pion, a win­ner of Paris-nice and mul­ti­ple Mon­u­ments and a BBC Sports Per­son­al­ity of the Year.

He was a ri­val to Eddy Mer­ckx, Felice Gi­mondi and Jac­ques An­quetil, and was more of a star in Bel­gium, his adopted coun­try, than he was at home. He dreamed of vic­tory in the Tour. Af­ter years of near misses, he was de­ter­mined to suc­ceed in 1967 and so, de­spite be­ing ill, he drove him­self to race on­wards… un­til his fatal col­lapse on the Gi­ant of Provence.

Simp­son’s death shocked and ap­palled cy­cling, and the wider sport­ing com­mu­nity. He had been suf­fer­ing from heat ex­haus­tion, fa­tigue and de­hy­dra­tion. All the re­ports of the time, and since, em­pha­sised the pill-pop­ping cul­ture of the era and point to am­phet­a­mine use as the ul­ti­mate cause of death. Which is why, for all his achieve­ments on the bike, the 50th an­niver­sary of Tom Simp­son’s death is go­ing al­most un­no­ticed by the Tour de France or­gan­i­sa­tion – and by much of the Bri­tish main­stream me­dia.

Even now, Simp­son’s name is still as­so­ci­ated with cy­cling’s on­go­ing bat­tle to dis­tance it­self from its eth­i­cal de­mons. Only in Bel­gium, where his daugh­ter Joanne is the driv­ing force keep­ing the flame burn­ing, is his ca­reer still cel­e­brated, his vic­to­ries re­mem­bered.

What­ever the de­fin­i­tive de­tails of his death, Joanne Simp­son will never al­low her fa­ther’s achieve­ments to be swept un­der the car­pet. There was much more to Tom Simp­son than the me­dia sound­bite of death on a hot af­ter­noon and the Tour’s fight against dop­ing.

Simp­son’s achieve­ments, at a time when foot­ball was the na­tion’s head­line sport, re­main un­der-recog­nised, par­tic­u­larly in Bri­tain. They are many: vic­tory in a bru­tal Tour of Flan­ders, in Mi­lan-san Remo, Bordeaux-paris,

the Tour of Lom­bardy; against Mer­ckx in Paris-nice and for Great Bri­tain in the World Cham­pi­onships Road Race. There was even a spell in the yel­low jer­sey in the Tour it­self.

Rac­ing in the Tour a year af­ter Eng­land had won the 1966 World Cup, and two years af­ter be­com­ing BBC Sports Per­son­al­ity of the Year, Tom Simp­son knew that vic­tory, with the Union flag on the shoul­ders of his jer­sey, would crown his suc­cess back home.

He was ag­o­nis­ingly close to the top of Ven­toux when he col­lapsed, just be­low the Col des Tem­pêtes, a lit­tle over a kilo­me­tre away from the ex­posed sum­mit. Five min­utes away at most, it has been es­ti­mated. On another day, on another year, he would prob­a­bly have got over the top and been able to re­cover on the de­scent.

Joanne Simp­son was on a beach in Cor­sica with her mum, He­len, when her fa­ther died on the Ven­toux. She was just four. Joanne doesn’t re­mem­ber much, apart from leav­ing the beach and walk­ing back through the vil­lage near Boni­fa­cio that her fa­ther was so fond of, and notic­ing that ‘ev­ery­body was cry­ing’.

The next day there was an obit­u­ary in the York­shire Post. Simp­son’s team­mate, Brian Robin­son, was quoted: ‘I know the place well where Tom died. It is a hill of death.’

In the name of the fa­ther

It’s un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hot, nudg­ing 30°C, on the late May af­ter­noon that we ar­rive at Joanne’s house just out­side Ghent. On the nearby main road, groups of Bel­gian cy­clists on high-end bikes pedal past in the warm sun­shine.

Joanne rides a lot too, some­times over 300km a week. She’s in train­ing for a se­ries of events mark­ing the 50th

Simp­son was ag­o­nis­ingly close to the top of Ven­toux when he col­lapsed, just be­low the Col des Tem­pêtes, a lit­tle over a kilo­me­tre away from the sum­mit

an­niver­sary of her dad’s death, in­clud­ing a fam­ily gath­er­ing on the Ven­toux on 13th July.

She is im­me­di­ately lik­able, warm and friendly, and has the same mis­chievous glint in her eye that char­ac­terised her fa­ther. Joanne has a pic­ture of Tom, crouch­ing in the grass in full Peu­geot kit, pick­ing flow­ers and lark­ing around for the pho­tog­ra­phers the morn­ing be­fore he died.

She of­fers us cof­fee and then takes us into her garage, which dou­bles as a mu­seum to her fa­ther’s ca­reer. His rac­ing sad­dle is mounted on the wall, as is a worn shoe cleat, a pair of forks and some team pub­lic­ity post­cards. There are two plas­tic bidons from the 1962 Tour de France, clearly marked ‘TOM SIMP­SON’. She opens a drawer and pulls out a tin of tiny cir­cles of cork. We’re flum­moxed un­til she ex­plains that they were used by her dad to pro­tect the tubs on his wheels from be­ing punc­tured by spoke ends.

Joanne’s own Pinarello, her spare wheels, a re­cum­bent and a bag of golf clubs are also on show, but it’s clear that this is also a liv­ing, breath­ing, fully tooled-up work­shop. ‘I used to play golf a bit, but,’ she says hes­i­tantly, ‘it’s not re­ally ac­tive enough for me.’

Some of that en­er­getic na­ture is down to the char­ac­ter­is­tic Simp­son fam­ily dy­namism. Faced with a €25,000 es­ti­mate for the in­stal­la­tion of a new kitchen, Joanne de­cided to be­come a fur­ni­ture maker her­self.

‘I went to school, evening classes for four years,’ she says, show­ing the straight­for­ward, get-on-with-it at­ti­tude that she in­her­ited from her dad. ‘Now I’m a fur­ni­ture maker.’

Tom was a grafter too. His fa­ther was a miner but he was de­ter­mined to make the grade as a cy­clist, de­spite be­ing nick­named ‘Four-stone Coppi’ by his train­ing part­ners. Pic­tures of Hugo Koblet, win­ner of the 1951 Tour – the first Tour to climb the Ven­toux – took pride of place on his bed­room wall.

Simp­son broke into Euro­pean rac­ing the hard way, leav­ing home with a few quid in his jacket, spare wheels, a French dic­tio­nary and a vague hope of digs in north­ern France. But he was re­silient and stuck at it. Fu­elled by his am­bi­tion, he turned pro­fes­sional in 1959.

Largely ig­nored in his home coun­try, at least by the non­cy­cling me­dia, Simp­son’s name has greater res­o­nance in Europe. Joanne shows us a por­trait of her fa­ther by James Straf­fon, un­veiled as a mu­ral in Lux­em­bourg this May by the Duchess of Cam­bridge. She also plans to fix a ver­sion of Straf­fon’s por­trait to the Simp­son mon­u­ment on Mont Ven­toux on the an­niver­sary of his death.

‘I’ve made a lit­tle cover to pro­tect it,’ she says. ‘But I know it won’t last long, not with the weather up there.’

‘I can live with the truth,’ Joanne says. ‘If that’s the truth, that Daddy took am­phet­a­mines, then so be it’

There’s al­ways mem­o­ra­bilia on the mon­u­ment – rac­ing caps, flow­ers, wa­ter bot­tles, even ded­i­cated flags, al­most all with per­sonal writ­ten ded­i­ca­tions. On one visit, Joanne found an urn filled with ashes. Not sure what to do, she ended up scat­ter­ing the con­tents across the sea of white rocks be­hind the mon­u­ment.

Yet not all of the Simp­son fam­ily is as much at ease with re­vis­it­ing the past. Tom’s widow, He­len, who sub­se­quently re­mar­ried to Simp­son’s Great Bri­tain team­mate Barry Hoban, is less com­fort­able with the me­dia at­ten­tion sur­round­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of her hus­band’s death.

‘It’s hard for her,’ Joanne says. ‘If it was up to her there would be noth­ing. She doesn’t want any­thing to do with the me­dia or the jour­nal­ists. I have to coach her a lit­tle and make sure that the jour­nal­ists are re­spect­ful. Oth­er­wise she shuts down.’

That ten­sion stems from the re­mem­bered pain of that day but also the am­bi­gu­ity over the cause of Simp­son’s death. His col­lapse was re­peat­edly at­trib­uted to a pen­chant for am­phet­a­mines, mixed on the day with co­gnac. It was cited as a wake-up call for cy­cling’s eth­i­cal is­sues.

Other fac­tors – his de­pleted re­serves, heat ex­haus­tion, his pre­vi­ous frail­ties in the moun­tains – have been swept to one side. It be­came the re­ceived wis­dom: am­phet­a­mines were de rigeur so Tom Simp­son died from dop­ing.

Joanne, like her mother, re­mains de­fi­ant. And even those who were close to him, fam­ily and his for­mer team­mates them­selves, seem con­flicted. Simp­son’s nephew, Chris Sid­wells, in his book Mr Tom, says of his un­cle, ‘Like many be­fore him and since, he be­gan to use drugs – stim­u­lants, be­cause that’s what they used then. Not of­ten, but use them he did and I can’t change that.’

Talk­ing to The Guardian’s Wil­liam Fother­ing­ham for his biography, Put Me Back On My Bike, for­mer team­mates openly dis­cussed Simp­son’s use of ‘stuff’, and of him hav­ing two suit­cases, one for his clothes and kit, the other for his range of ton­ics and prod­ucts. But Joanne, un­flinch­ing in seek­ing out the truth about her fa­ther, wants proof. She is un­con­vinced that drugs were to blame for his death. So un­con­vinced, in fact, that she has re­cently pur­sued a copy of the au­topsy re­port from Avignon.

‘I can live with the truth,’ she says. ‘If that’s the truth, that Daddy took am­phet­a­mines, then so be it.’

Sadly, though, her search for the de­fin­i­tive truth has reached a dead end. The au­topsy records were de­stroyed be­fore the end of the 1990s. As none of the fam­ily had ever be­fore seen or re­quested a copy of the re­port, Joanne will now never know.

She shows me the let­ter from the Cen­tre Hospi­tal­ier Henri Truf­faut in Avignon. ‘French law au­tho­rises the de­struc­tion of med­i­cal records 25 years af­ter death,’ it reads, ‘or 30 years in some case. The dossier for Mon­sieur Thomas Simp­son has thus been de­stroyed at some point be­tween 1992 and 1997…’

As I take in the let­ter’s stark mean­ing, Joanne care­fully places the sad­dle, shoe cleat and old bidons back in po­si­tion and closes the door to the garage.

Re­turn to the moun­tain

Ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal tourist board, close to 130,000 cy­clists climbed Mont Ven­toux in 2016. The moun­tain’s pop­u­lar­ity as a bucket list climb – the Ever­est of cy­cling – is mush­room­ing by the year, partly fu­elled by the le­gend of Tom Simp­son. For Joanne, it’s a moun­tain that has be­come some­thing of a touch­stone to her life.

She has be­come a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the spot where her fa­ther died. She will be back on 13th July, ac­com­pa­nied by many of her close and ex­tended fam­ily, plus some other lu­mi­nar­ies and peers, in­clud­ing Eddy Mer­ckx.

De­spite her fam­ily tragedy, Joanne has never been scared of the Ven­toux. Yet for a long time the Ven­toux was a fam­ily taboo, un­til the 30th an­niver­sary of her fa­ther’s death, when Joanne de­cided to climb it.

‘When I told my mum she said, “Oh, you don’t have to prove any­thing – it’s the Ven­toux, please don’t.”’

‘I was rid­ing up Ven­toux think­ing, “Bloody hell, Dad, this isn’t easy,” but as I got higher I thought, “You did choose a beau­ti­ful place to die”’

But Joanne trained hard and made the pil­grim­age. ‘I was rid­ing up Ven­toux think­ing, “Bloody hell, Dad, this isn’t easy,” but then as I got higher up, I thought, “You did choose a beau­ti­ful place to die. What a view!”’

On 13th July, Joanne and her group of fam­ily and friends will climb to the top of the moun­tain and then de­scend back down to the Simp­son mon­u­ment, just 1.3km from the sum­mit, to pay their re­spects. The Tour de France it­self, whether by ac­ci­dent or de­sign, will be hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres away, head­ing into the Pyre­nees.

The ab­sence of any visit to Mont Ven­toux or trib­ute has been ex­plained away by ASO, the Tour’s par­ent com­pany, as down to a lack of ‘can­di­da­ture’ for a stage by the moun­tain’s lo­cal author­ity. Joanne, how­ever, is dis­mis­sive: ‘It proves what I have al­ways known all these years. They’re ashamed. The Simp­son name is a blem­ish.’

We climb the stairs to Joanne’s at­tic, where, boxed up and care­fully la­belled, she has a painstak­ingly com­piled ar­chive of mem­o­ra­bilia. She opens up sev­eral fold­ers of let­ters to the Tom Simp­son fan club, which was based in Ghent. Then she pulls out a home­made flag ded­i­cated to her fa­ther that she found be­ing draped over the mon­u­ment by a group of Brits as she rode up the moun­tain one day.

‘They were stunned when I told them who I was, but I’ve kept it and will be tak­ing it down there on 13th July.’

Then come the jer­seys, in­clud­ing her dad’s Peu­geot ex­am­ple and his Paris-nice win­ner’s jer­sey. She also has

a musette, a cap and her step­fa­ther Hoban’s Mercier rac­ing jer­sey. Joanne then pulls out a Garmin rac­ing cap tossed to­wards the mon­u­ment as he passed by for­mer pro David Mil­lar, with the mes­sage ‘To Tommy, RIP’.

In­cred­i­bly, Joanne, watch­ing the Tour go past, caught it. ‘I don’t think he knows I have it,’ Joanne smiles. I take a pic­ture of Joanne with the cap and mes­sage Mil­lar. ‘That’s amaz­ing…!’ he replies a few min­utes later. Then there are the mag­a­zines, in English, French, Flem­ish and Ital­ian, with im­ages of her fa­ther in kit, on podi­ums and off the bike, pos­ing in what be­came his trade­mark bowler hat and um­brella.

He’s on many cov­ers and fea­tures in­side too, pic­tured rac­ing on the cob­bles of Paris-roubaix, the hills of Lom­bardy and the climbs of the French Pyre­nees, rub­bing shoul­ders with An­quetil, Gi­mondi and Mer­ckx.

Joanne has been train­ing with Eddy Mer­ckx, on and off, in prepa­ra­tion for his own birth­day event on the Ven­toux this June. Even though the Bel­gian le­gend was her fa­ther’s team­mate and at­tended his fu­neral, re­la­tions were dis­tant un­til fairly re­cently. But Joanne says she and Mer­ckx have struck up a friend­ship and rid­den to­gether a few times.

‘Ride at the front, Simp­son!’ is what Mer­ckx says to her. ‘Ride where I can see you. I don’t want to get flicked again,’ he says, ref­er­enc­ing the fa­mous feud be­tween Simp­son and Mer­ckx, both Peu­geot team­mates, at Paris-nice in 1967.

It’s ironic, then, that five-time Tour cham­pion Mer­ckx – who also tested pos­i­tive three times dur­ing his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer – is be­ing hon­oured by the Tour de France with a 2019 Grand Dé­part in Brus­sels, while Simp­son’s mem­ory re­mains in the shad­ows. But with the au­topsy long gone and his death dom­i­nated by al­le­ga­tions of am­phet­a­mine use, Joanne has had to ac­cept that her fa­ther’s achieve­ments, and most of all his death, will al­ways be con­tro­ver­sial.

Joanne be­gins box­ing up the caps, jer­seys and flags. Like Mer­ckx, Tom Simp­son was more than just a bike rider, de­fined by more than just his pal­marès. He was a hu­man be­ing, driven and am­bi­tious, yes, but flawed and im­per­fect too. And he was also some­body’s son, some­body’s hus­band and some­body’s fa­ther. Jeremy Whittle is a cy­cling jour­nal­ist whose book, Ven­toux, Sac­ri­fice And Suf­fer­ing On The Gi­ant Of Provence, is pub­lished by Si­mon and Schus­ter

Tom Simp­son’s daugh­ter, Joanne, has ded­i­cated much of her life to keep­ing his name alive, and has a per­sonal mu­seum full of mem­o­ra­bilia in her garage in Bel­gium

Joanne’s col­lec­tion in­cludes items made in hon­our of her fa­ther, plus many per­sonal sou­venirs (above) from his ca­reer

Joanne shows off a por­trait of her fa­ther in the World Cham­pion’s bands he won in 1965

Pho­to­graphs line Joanne’s garage wall, and her col­lec­tion in­cludes plenty of fan mem­o­ra­bilia

Joanne’s garage is a work­shop as well as a mu­seum, and she’s been in train­ing for Eddy Mer­ckx’s birth­day ride on Mont Ven­toux

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